Visual artist Andrea Hazel pays homage to a section of the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood that was demolished by the now-named Septima P. Clark Parkway. She began work on her watercolor series How It Was…Charleston in 1963 in 2015.
“The idea was to show what happened, and to remember these places,” Hazel said.
The four-lane highway was completed in 1967, then named the Crosstown Expressway, to connect Highway 17 with Interstate 26. The route sliced through the predominantly Black area where Hazel grew up, displacing approximately 150 residences and businesses, according to the Coastal Conservation League.
The project obliterated part of the upper peninsula’s historic street grid, and with bitter irony, was renamed for the civil rights activist Septima P. Clark in 1978. (First unofficially, by the erection of a marker for Clark; then officially, with changes to street signs in April 2010.)
Hazel offers a personalized record of the area through her paintings, which are based on a collection of surveyed photos taken by the S.C. Department of Transportation prior to the demolition. Hazel discovered the photos in 2015 via the South Carolina Digital Library.
“Seeing those photos, I thought, I know these houses. I know these streets. It just took me back to being 12 years old and so I thought, I’ve got to paint these. I thought, if I’m enjoying seeing these images, I think other people will enjoy seeing them too.”
She first shared an image of her paintings on the Facebook history group Charleston before 1945.
“People went crazy,” she said. “I love it when people react like, ‘Oh I remember that! My grandmother lived over there!’ I just love keeping that spirit alive. That’s why the series has been successful,” she said. “This represents our youth.”
The photos were taken on black and white film, so Hazel said she created the color palette from memory.
“I use the same palette for all of them, and I try to keep my colors a little muted,” she said. “These are not fresh memories, so they need to be a little bit faded to reflect that.”
During the time of the highway project, Hazel was attending college in New York state. She recounted a story of sleeping on the bus ride home and waking up on the corner of Meeting and Lee streets to an entirely different landscape. Her extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents — all lived in the area (mostly on Ashley Avenue) prior to the demolition.
“When I came back, it looked a whole lot different,” Hazel said. “When I woke up on the corner of Meeting and Lee, I didn’t know where I was.”
Impact of imagery
Dr. Millicent Brown, Charleston native and lifelong civil rights activist, offered the City Paper important context for appreciating Hazel’s project. Brown, a retired associate professor of 20th century U.S. history and women’s History at Claflin University, also grew up in the neighborhood.
As a historian, Brown said she is keenly aware of how images impact understanding.
“We have all those celebrated images of Rainbow Row, the houses on the Battery; those are the images that are going to always be available for defining Charleston,” Brown said. “Where are our images for the Black community?”
Brown said the narrative surrounding the construction of the crosstown needs to be corrected, especially in the imagery depicting it. The crosstown project was a result of institutional racism, Brown said, covered up by the false pretense of a “clean up” project of a dilapidated neighborhood, which she said this area was not.
“‘Urban renewal’ was the phrase used back then; this was happening across the nation,” Brown said. “Highways and arteries, bridges and overpasses were being built at the expense of Black neighborhoods — the rationale being that they were dilapidated and needed to be removed for repair.
“And I certainly know some of those buildings along the crosstown were, in fact, in disrepair, but not all of them,” she said. “So many of them were stately, well-kept structures.”
Hazel recounted how her family would walk down a tree-lined street from their home on Ashley Avenue to their church on Sheppard Street. Both the house and the church were lost in the demolition. The new highway also impacted the area’s walkability: It was void of crosswalks for 10 years after the project’s completion.
“A whole generation of schoolchildren and their parents had to learn how to negotiate crossing that highway,” Brown said. “That just shows you the lack of concern they had when tearing a highway through an intact community.”
Brown said she and her family do not refer to the crosstown as the Septima P. Clark Parkway.
“Naming the intrusion of that crosstown after Mrs. Clark is troubling and disturbing,” Brown said. “You’re going to destroy this community, and then name it for a woman who stood for just the opposite. … We need to pay attention to the fuller story.”
Hazel’s paintings memorialize demolished sites like the Push Grocery, a corner store at 77 Fishburne St. The painting titled “The Bowden House” depicts the home of Mr. and Mrs. John T. Bowden at 287 Coming St., a white house with “B” monograms on the green shutters.
Many of the homes destroyed were owned by prominent Black people and community leaders, including Brown’s father, Joe Arthur Brown, who served as chapter president of the local NAACP from 1953 to 1960 and led efforts to fight segregation.
The curve in the crosstown is nicknamed the “Joe Brown curve,” Brown said. Though there is no proof, she said that the community has long speculated that the parkway makes a potentially unnecessary turn so that it would intentionally affect the Brown family home.
Also lost in the demolition was the original Dart Hall Library at 19 Kracke St.
Hazel’s painting of the original Dart Hall offers a watercolor vision of the old building’s facade, with a young Black figure standing in front, gazing at the monumental site.
Viewers of Hazel’s artwork regularly reach out to her, she said, in the hopes she might paint their homes or relatives’ homes which were affected by the construction.
“We’re such a special community,” Hazel said, “and that’s why people come here from all over the world. They don’t wanna see fancy, modern everything. They want to see Charleston.”
Hazel plans to make more paintings in the series, continuing her project to memorialize the places she knew growing up, surrounded by family and community.
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